Bribe or harmless incentive? Paying journalists for audits called a gray area

Agency pros, in-house communicators, and professors were divided about whether offering financial incentives to journalists crosses an ethical line.

Bribe or harmless incentive? Paying journalists for audits called a gray area

There’s nothing controversial about the part of a media audit in which PR pros solicit feedback from editors and reporters. But what if the journalists are financially incentivized to participate? Communications experts say the practice is another gray area for the industry the industry should clarify.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that Edelman representatives had emailed reporters on behalf of a federal agency they would not name for insights on helping to "refine their agency messaging." The note also asked the journalists "to keep the conversation confidential," and said the agency would make a charitable donation of $175 on the reporters’ behalf.

Post reporter Colby Itkowitz wrote the federal agency and its PR firm were resorting to "secretive research and charity bribes" to generate positive coverage in the future.

It turned out that the agency in question was the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which responded to the Post with an emailed statement. "The Edelman effort is information-gathering in nature, and designed to provide SAMHSA with an enhanced understanding of how it could better meet the needs of the behavioural healthcare community," it said.

Edelman declined comment for this article, and SAMHSA also declined to comment beyond its statement to the Post.

Agency and in-house communicators and those in academia were divided on whether financial incentives for the media cross an ethical line. Some say a small charitable donation is harmless, and suggest the newspaper took issue with the media audit itself, which is a common and accepted communications practice.

Others say that because the outreach was shrouded in secrecy, it had shades of a pay-for-play scheme, a tactic that has long been controversial with traditional journalists, but has more recently been associated with securing blogger coverage. Pay-for-play coverage "occurs when there is intent to hide an exchange of value between a PR professional and a journalist" for earned media gain, according to the Public Relations Society of America.

In 2009, the PRSA updated its member code of ethics with a provision stating that ethical practitioners must encourage full disclosure if any exchange of value with a journalist resulted in editorial coverage.

"The payment can be in various forms, including gifts and future favors," it states.

George Johnson, chair of the PRSA’s board of ethics and professional standards, contends Edelman was looking to improve messaging for its clients, not to create a bias or conflict with reporters in terms of future coverage.

However, Johnson says the tactic still violated a provision of the PRSA’s code of ethics – "protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information" – by withholding the identity of the federal agency. He adds that communicators should not ask journalists to keep such information confidential.

"In this case, while it sounded good to give to charity, what the PR person also needed to do was at least disclose the client," Johnson says.

Matthew Ragas, associate professor and academic director of the PR and advertising program at DePaul University, agrees Edelman and SAMHSA were likely well-intentioned, but they may have misjudged how the pitch would be perceived by journalists. Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly also took issue with it.

"The thinking with the incentive was, ‘Journalists are very busy, they have a lot on their plate, I really want them to spend time and be thoughtful with this,’" says Ragas. "But I don’t think the trade publication liked the lack of disclosure and money changing hands – and you have to remember, some journalists are always a little skeptical of PR people and our intentions."

He adds: "You need to take into account the policies of the journalists with whom you are trying to work with."

Those standards vary by publication and coverage area. While an exchange of some kind between PR pros and bloggers, as well as reporters who cover sectors like travel and automotive, are common, editors at some organizations and in some beats take a harder line. Journalists at Bloomberg News, for instance, are forbidden from accepting gifts or donations of any kind. At The New York Times, reporters are encouraged to make every effort to pick up the tab when meeting with sources for lunch.

"As a researcher, this case raises interesting questions about ethics, but also one of recognizing journalism norms. When I talk to agencies with clients in travel and tourism, there is a different set of norms in terms of what journalists will accept as part of coverage in term of trips, and more," points out Ragas. "I work mostly with business and finance journalists, and they’re definitely more sensitive to rigorous standards and policies." 

He adds that the pitch itself may have set off alarms for the journalists it targeted.

"What may have got the media bent out of shape in this case was the wording of the invitation," concludes Ragas. "That term pay for play is so loaded and dangerous – you have to think of how something seemingly well-intended can be perceived."

Not everyone is so critical. Numerous agency or client leaders, some of whom declined to be quoted, say the Post made a fuss over an innocuous pitch.

"I don’t find it a least bit unusual; it is hardly a smoking gun," says Jason Maloni, SVP and chair of the litigation practice at Levick. "I actually see it as a rather creative way to make someone feel good about providing feedback."

He adds that "The Post seems to think they have found a ‘gotcha’ moment, and now Edelman finds itself in the crosshairs for what perhaps might have been an inartful execution." Maloni also notes that market researchers pay participants in focus groups, whether they are doctors, attorneys, or members of other professions.

"It was a bit of a cheap shot on the part of the Post," he adds. "I can make your hairs stand on end on what pay-for-play really looks like – it is not $175 toward charity for a survey."

Yet others say the PR industry has worked hard to clean up its reputation on such matters, and that monetary tactics, though perhaps well-meaning and seemingly insignificant, risk undermining that.

"It’s not common and ethically questionable," says Todd Defren, CEO of Shift Communications, about providing any kind of financial reward even for charity to reporters for participating in media audits. "While I understand how Edelman might defend the approach, in my humble opinion, it's in a gray area that is unhelpful to the PR industry's reputation."

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